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Milwaukee Brewers camp battle update: Fifth Starter

Who has the inside edge headed into 2020?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

The announcement that Eric Lauer going onto the injured list with a shoulder impingement cleared some of the confusion about who the fifth starter would be going into the start of the regular season. It was initially announced that Lauer and Freddy Peralta would compete for the fifth starter role. With Lauer out, it would be reasonable to surmise that Freddy Peralta would get the nod.

So we can put things to rest, right? Brandon Woodruff, Adrian Houser, Josh Lindblom, Brett Anderson, and Freddy Peralta are the Brewers’ starting five.

However, Corbin Burnes just said, “wait just a minute.”

Burnes is outpitching Peralta this spring. In fact, he is outpitching just about everyone. With Corbin Burnes pitching so well, Craig Counsell and the rest of the coaching staff have a murkier path to a decision than first anticipated. That said, there is a case for both pitchers to get the coveted fifth starter role. There is also a case for Eric Lauer taking the fifth starter spot on his return from injury.

The Case for Freddy Peralta

Of the three pitchers listed, Freddy Peralta has shown flashes of brilliance more often to this point in his career. In his first start as an MLB pitcher against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field, he stuck out 13 hitters. In his second start last season against Cincinnati, Peralta was dominant sticking out nine without walking a batter across seven innings.

Peralta would ultimately struggle as a starter and was moved to the bullpen in June 2019. While inconsistent, there were times he looked like a future late-inning reliever. While unable to take the closer role last season, he had folks thinking of that as a possibility at some point. After a rough outing against the Houston Astros on June 11 where he gave up six runs over four innings, Peralta was moved full time to the bullpen. He posted a 4.62 ERA and a 3.81 FIP for the rest of the season. Nothing extraordinary, but again there were flashes of brilliance.

It has been widely reported that Peralta developed a new and improved pitch to add to his repertoire, a slider. The slider looked lethal in winter ball in the Dominican League, and has been impressive early on in Spring Training.

While he was impressive in winter ball pitching to a 1.35 ERA, that has not translated quite as well to Spring Training, although he has not been bad. After giving up three runs to the Dodgers in his most recent outing, Peralta’s Spring Training ERA is 4.50. He has struck out 15 over 12 innings. While his slider is getting the attention, he plans to throw four pitches: slider, fastball, change, and curve. His curveball looks as if it has improved too.

Peralta will be a strikeout machine in whatever role he takes. Can he build in more consistency to his game is the overwhelming question to answer? If he can, Freddy Peralta has as much upside as any pitcher in the Brewers’ system. Obviously the Brewers’ front office thinks so as well as they inked Peralta to a 5-year, $15.5 million extension with a pair of club options worth up to another $14.5 million. That contract may give Peralta an inside track to the fifth starter spot, and he sounds pretty confident.

The Case for Corbin Burnes

Corbin Burnes has been lights out so far this spring. Over 10 innings pitched, Burnes has a 0.90 ERA. He has stuck out 13 hitters over that time period while walking just three.

Burnes articulated early in camp that he would be building his pitching strategy around the slider as it is considered one of the best pitches in baseball.

Obviously 2019 was a season to forget. While he was striking out the world with a 12.86 K/9, he had a 3.12 HR/9. That type of home run rate is just not sustainable. Even with some of the best spin rates on his fastball in all of baseball, Burnes was an absolute mess in 2019. The result was moving between Milwaukee to San Antonio to the pitching lab in Arizona all season long.

Burnes and the Brewers’ pitching gurus think they have it figured out. Burnes blamed much of the issues of 2019 on an over-reliance on that high spin rate fastball. This year the slider will be the highlight pitch as its spin rate is also one of the best in baseball.

Is it enough to get the fifth spot in the starting rotation? There was talk that Burnes would start the year in AAA to keep stretched out as a starter. The injury to Lauer and his performance this spring changed that. Burnes’ stuff is some of the best in baseball. If he harnesses it, the sky is the limit.

The Case for Eric Lauer

Coming into the season, Eric Lauer probably had the inside track to the fifth starter spot. His shoulder injury at least puts that idea on hold. His injury may also ensure that he is in the bullpen when he returns. However there is a case to be made that Lauer should take the fifth starter role once he is healthy, especially if Peralta and/or Burnes are mediocre.

Lauer was pitching pretty well early in the spring. Over 5.1 innings, he posted a 1.69 ERA. Lauer credited the Brewers’ coaches and pitching lab for helping to acquire another pitch to impact opposing batters — the changeup. Lauer already does a good job making quality pitches.

If his new found changeup turns out to be a really good pitch for him, Lauer will have made his greatest weakness into a strength. That means there is a ceiling that has yet to be tapped.

There is also Lauer’s floor. While Burnes and Peralta have higher ceilings than Lauer, their floors are lower. Lauer does not have the same level of variance potential as the other two young starters. Lauer already looks like a solid back-of-the-rotation starter. Baseball Reference has Lauer projected to pitch to a 4.41 ERA over 145 innings and a 1.39 WHIP. Those numbers are not exciting, but they are in line with a number five starter or swingman.

If Burnes and/or Peralta perform well, however there is a chance that Lauer goes to San Antonio.

While the rest of baseball believes Milwaukee’s pitching is suspect, the Brewers’ front office and coaching staff believes in the group they have. There is certainly depth. With three pitchers vying for a fifth starter role with the potential of Freddy Peralta and Corbin Burnes along with a proven and solid commodity that is Eric Lauer, the Brewers are in good shape with regards to depth in the starting rotation. Not to mention Shelby Miller and Brent Suter are potentially available if things go South in terms of injury. While the starting rotation does not stand out on paper, a step taken by one, two, or even all three of these young pitchers will bode well for Milwaukee in 2020 and beyond.

Baseball statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Fangraphs